The death of Toni Morrison, a Nobel-winning novelist, essayist, professor, and editor, marked the passing of a transcendent voice in American literature.
Morrison’s remarkable legacy as a writer is intertwined with an elegant mastery of multiple roles, including those of working mother and, for 15 years, editor in educational and trade book publishing.
A search through the PW archive offers a trove of materials that document the beginnings of Morrison’s glittering career in the 1970s as an influential author and a no-nonsense publishing professional, the first black female senior editor at Random House. And even as her literary reputation flourished, she was focused on the authors she acquired and edited—among them, Muhammad Ali, Toni Cade Bambara, Henry Dumas, Gayl Jones, and Huey P. Newton—and on the issues surrounding textbook and trade publishing of the time.[Four publishing and literary professionals offer personal tributes to Toni Morrison]
Morrison was a social visionary as well. In a 1974 PW feature on women in publishing, she highlighted the problems that women face in the publishing industry, and she read her poems at a 1971 Publishers for Peace antiwar rally. She moved seamlessly between writing, editing, and teaching, and she was as comfortable (and entertaining) on a panel discussing the state of the novel as she was calling on writers to organize collective bargaining efforts against the very publisher that she worked for.
In a 1987 PW profile, Morrison noted, “People used to say how come you do so many things? It never appeared to me that I was doing very much of anything; really everything I did was always about one thing, which is books. I was either editing them or writing them or reading them or teaching them, so it was very coherent.”
On a panel (with novelist Erica Jong) about the state of the novel during the 1974 ABA Convention (the predecessor to BookExpo), Morrison spoke of writing The Bluest Eye and her surprise and delight that “7,500 people actually got up and bought [the book].” But, she added, after becoming a trade book editor and learning about “all the work, pain, agony, the struggles over paper, design, and budget” that go into publishing a novel, “not to have everybody in the U.S. rush out to buy my second novel, Sula, seemed unfair.”
Morrison was a pioneering novelist focused on the representation of African-American life as well as a pioneering editor—PW’s feature on women in publishing described her as “a unique combination in the trade.” In that same article, Morrison was blunt about the racial status quo of the publishing industry. “I need freedom more than power,” she said. “Some people think I’m some sort of Amazon, so in the future they may expect other black women editors to be Amazons. But for years they have hired dumb whites so why not include dumb blacks?”
By the early 1980s Morrison had cut back on editing to focus on her writing, but editing was still critical to her creative vision. “Piercing knots in language and in ideas, assisting in the discovery of clarity, connections, illustrations, tone are what editing requires,” she said. “I thrive on the urgency that doing more than one thing provides—on the sense of pressure that I either need or am accustomed to.”
While she was an elite literary author, Morrison remained an iconoclastic troublemaker. In an account of the 1981 American Writers Congress, PW said Morrison’s “rousing” keynote address (“interrupted frequently by cheers and applause”) set the tone for the rest of the event. Her speech managed to champion the centrality of editors alongside writers, as the publishing industry transitioned into an era of corporate ownership and relentless demands for growth.
“Writers today are regarded as toys,” Morrison said in the speech, adding, “Editors are now judged by the profitability of what they acquired rather than by what they acquire, or the way they acquire it. Acceptance of the givenness of the marketplace keeps us in ignorance. We are in an adversary relationship with publishers.”
Morrison’s career as a novelist and essayist began while she was working as a textbook editor for an educational publisher based in Syracuse, N.Y., in the late 1960s. “It wasn’t really writing,” she told PW in that 1987 profile, describing the beginnings of her first novel. “It was sort of doing something at night, rather than cultivating friendships. I found myself very good company, so I never needed a party or a dinner in order to make me wonder on Saturday night, what are you going to do? And besides I had these little children, so I wrote at night, sporadically, trying to build on a story I had written years before. I liked the authority of being in a place where I was doing it, and I liked how hard it was. And I liked the privacy, the interior world that was all mine, the freedom to explore that in a systematic way.”